The most remarkable thing about the top-ranked players in the Forbes Star Currency list (which measures power, money and fame) is that Angelina Jolie competes head-on with Johnny Depp, her partner Brad Pitt, and Will Smith. It helps that she nabbed an Oscar nom for Changeling. But she's ranked so high because of Wanted. She nabbed $15 million to anchor that movie, because she's an action star, the first ever to compete on a level playing field with her male peers. The studios will even give Jolie a role written for a man: she replaced Tom Cruise in Phil Noyce's upcoming studio thriller Edwin A. Salt.
There was a time when movie audiences would not accept a woman with a gun. James Cameron's kick-ass heroines Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton were understood to be fighting to save the world--and protect children. Somehow, from Tomb Raider to going mano a mano with Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jolie has been able to push the limits for women in action.
There is a downside to Jolie's action stardom, though, just as there is with Cruise. She's bigger than life. She's a huge celebrity. She's distracting.
Cruise and Jolie can be formidable in big movie star vehicles. Jolie was the only actor in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow who could comfortably inhabit that stylized fake universe. But what happens when she plays a real character in A Mighty Heart, Changeling or The Good Shepherd? No matter how skillfully she performs, she's still Angelina Jolie.
Big movie stars are a distraction, especially when they are asked to be authentic real people, based on true stories, in naturalistic dramas. Cruise never quite disappeared into his role as heroic Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie. In theory the movie could have been made with a less well-known actor (who could have done the German accent), for less money and potentially more profit. (But Cruise was able to get it made.)
Meanwhile, Cruise is trying to claw his way back into commercial contention with The Tourist, Bharat Nalluri's remake of the 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer, co-starring Charlize Theron, for Spyglass, and he's also in talks to star opposite Denzel Washington in David Cronenberg's film adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel The Matarese Circle, for MGM (not UA). This should be well-tailored to the Cruise persona.
There's little question that audiences want to see stars like Jolie and Cruise in movie star mode. And for the moment, both seem inclined to give them what they want.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]